Rabbit Enrichment Items: Getting Bang for the Buck (and Doe)

A recent discussion on the Laboratory Animal Refinement and Enrichment Forum (LAREF) focused on new enrichment ideas for rabbits. Brianna Parkinson initiated the conversation to share her experience and to ask what others have tried. Sarah Thurston, Steven Ortiz, Jacqueline Schwartz, Leslie Jenkins, Michele Cunneen, and Lorraine Bell all chimed in on which toys and treats get rave reviews from rabbits.

Brianna: We currently use fruit inside toys, Icees, and a fruit/veggie mix for rabbits. I have thought about trying paper bags with treats inside, but any other ideas would be greatly appreciated!

Sarah: Paper bags are great. They are probably our rabbits’ favorite enrichment items (other than food treats!). We stuff the bags with hay, shredded paper, treats, toys, etc.

A major factor in enrichment is novelty; rabbits get bored so easily, so make sure you are varying your enrichment categories. Try to vary between high-value and low-value items to keep things stimulating. Low-value items would be any of the manipulanda like toys, cardboard, chew sticks, wood blocks, etc. that are fun but only for a short while. Cardboard is one of our favorites because you can roll it up and stick it in the cage door (if you have cage housing). The rabbits have to work to get the cardboard into the cage; then they will work to shred it and turn it into digging substrate as well. Cardboard is cheap and can be quickly managed by the staff, but the rabbits really enjoy it and it takes them quite a while to destroy it. We recycle cardboard boxes from within the facility and autoclave all cardboard items prior to giving them to the animals.

High value items are, of course, food treats. It sounds like you are doing a great mix of fresh, frozen, and dried! Other high value items are destructible materials such as the paper bags or cardboard boxes filled with something good inside that the rabbits can tear into or cardboard tubs filled with hay or crinkled paper, with items scattered throughout to satisfy the animals’ natural foraging drive. We also utilize supplemental enrichment such as low-volume instrumental music and gentle handling/grooming for those rabbits who enjoy it. As always, social housing is the very best enrichment for rabbits.

Steven: Rabbits love cut pineapples and pineapple juice. First, I would take a clean container (like the shipping containers that the mice come in, cleaned in cage wash) and fill the entire bottom with wood blocks. I would soak the blocks for a few hours in pineapple juice and then give them to the rabbits. Spraying toys with pineapple juice also works. Don’t be afraid to use a blender and blend some fruits like pears into a mush and use a paint brush to cover any toy item. The rabbits love this. I like to use blenders and come up with all kinds of variations. I’ve also noticed that rabbits like to shred, so giving them items they can tear is great. Sometimes it may be a bit much for the husbandry staff to clean, but the rabbits’ enrichment is so important that it warrants a little extra work time. I think the paper bags with the treats inside will be a big hit.

Jacqueline: Small cardboard boxes with hay or treats work well; rabbits love to destroy stuff and chew up cardboard. How are your rabbits housed? It is very odd but I have found that rabbits love noise if it is their idea and they are making it. When we had to house rabbits alone in rabbit banks I would give them a small stainless steel bowl. They would pick it up and throw it around as a plaything. I also used small stainless bells or Mason jar lid rings and hung them on the inside of their cage. They seemed to really enjoy playing with them.

Leslie: As mentioned previously, small boxes work really well. We save empty glove boxes and stuff them with shredded paper, timothy hay cubes, and other food items. The rabbits will spend quite some time digging through everything and shredding the box. I find these enrichment boxes especially helpful for post-operative animals who need to focus on something other than their incisions.

Michele: I like to encourage papaya tablets because they prevent fur balls and the rabbits love them. Once they know what’s coming, the rabbits will approach to get one. Offering the tablets also helps facilitate health checks because as you enter they all come up to the front of the cage waiting for one. You can get dried papaya from certified sources like Bioserv or chewable tablets from GNC, or dried papaya at health food and pet stores, depending on your level of bio-security.

Also, if you know anyone with apple trees that are not sprayed, then thin apple twigs of pencil thickness and 12–14 inches long are great. I get them off my dad’s property where they had an orchard years ago. I cut the twigs and put them in the autoclave for two minutes on 180–212°F to kill any bugs. The rabbits will strip the bark off and then chew the wood.

Lorraine: I can confirm that the rabbits will indeed learn to recognize the potential for a papaya tablet. I recently was providing a tour into our rabbit rooms and lifted up the papaya tablet container. Every rabbit was instantly at the front of their cages, even those who had been semi-dozing!

LAREF facilitates the sharing of experiences about ways to refine the conditions under which animals are housed and handled in research institutions. It is open to animal care personnel, animal technicians, students, attending veterinarians, and researchers with firsthand experience in the care of animals in research and education facilities. LAREF is moderated by Viktor Reinhardt. If you want to join LAREF, please send a message to viktor@cot.net indicating briefly your practical experience with animals kept in research laboratories, your current professional affiliation, and your interests as they pertain to the discussion group.